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Medina v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

February 11, 2019

APRIL N. MEDINA, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         This matter comes before the Court on Plaintiff April N. Medina's Motion to Reverse and Remand Agency Decision for Payment of Benefits or in the Alternative, for a Rehearing, [Doc. 17], filed April 9, 2018. Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 73(b), the parties have consented to the undersigned Magistrate Judge to conduct dispositive proceedings in this matter, including the entry of final judgment. [Docs. 3, 7, 8]. Having studied the parties' positions, the relevant law, and the relevant portions of the Administrative Record (“AR”), [1] the Court grants Ms. Medina's Motion and remands this case for further administrative analysis, for the reasons set forth below.


         This Court's role in a Social Security appeal is specific and narrow. Ordinarily, the Commissioner's decision must be affirmed where the correct legal standards are applied and the decision is supported by substantial evidence. These standards are deferential; the Court is not permitted to reweigh the evidence or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. However, the reviewing Court must be able to follow the adjudicator's reasoning, especially where a claim is denied at Step Five of the sequential evaluation process. This is because the burden is on the Commissioner at Step Five to prove that the claimant can still perform work that exists in the national economy.

         In this case, the Commissioner found that Ms. Medina retains the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to work at Step Five. However, in coming to this conclusion, the ALJ failed to consider the “total limiting effects” of Ms. Medina's non-severe impairments on her RFC. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.945(e). This was clear legal error, and it harmed Ms. Medina because if the effects of her non-severe impairments had been considered, her RFC might have been more limited than the full range of work found in this case. This is not to say that Ms. Medina deserves benefits. On remand, the Commissioner may come to the same ultimate conclusion that she is not disabled under the Social Security Act. However, without the correct analysis, this Court has no choice but to remand this case for further administrative proceedings.


         Ms. Medina filed an application with the Social Security Administration for supplemental security income benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act on April 21, 2014. AR at 187-192. As grounds, Ms. Medina alleged “Bipolar.” AR at 230. Ms. Medina alleged that her condition became severe enough to keep her from working on June 1, 2011. AR at 230. The Administration denied Ms. Medina's claim initially and upon reconsideration, and she requested a de novo hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). AR at 92-137.

         ALJ James Linehan held an evidentiary hearing on October 11, 2016. AR at 40-64. On November 3, 2016, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision, finding that Ms. Medina has not been under a disability from the date her application was filed through the date of his decision. AR at 34. In response, Ms. Medina filed a “Request for Review of Hearing Decision/Order” on December 5, 2016. AR at 786. After reviewing her case, the Appeals Council denied Ms. Medina's request for review on September 25, 2017. AR at 1-6. As such, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. Doyal v. Barnhart, 331 F.3d 758, 759 (10th Cir. 2003). This Court now has jurisdiction to review the decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and 20 C.F.R. § 422.210(a).

         A claimant seeking disability benefits must establish that she is unable to engage in “any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months.” 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A); 20 C.F.R. § 416.905(a). The Commissioner must use a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine eligibility for benefits. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4).[2]

         At Step One of the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found that Ms. Medina has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her application date. AR at 22. At Step Two, he determined that Ms. Medina has the severe impairments of “affective disorder, bipolar disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder, and anxiety disorder[.]” AR at 17. At Step Three, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Medina's impairments, individually and in combination, do not meet or medically equal the regulatory “listings.” AR at 23-25. Ms. Medina does not challenge these findings on appeal. [See Doc. 17].

         When a claimant does not meet a listed impairment, the ALJ must determine her residual functional capacity (“RFC”). 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(e). “RFC is an administrative assessment of the extent to which an individual's medically determinable impairment(s), including any related symptoms, such as pain, may cause physical or mental limitations or restrictions that may affect his or her capacity to do work-related physical and mental activities.” SSR 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184, at *2. “RFC is not the least an individual can do despite his or her limitations or restrictions, but the most.” SSR 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184, at *1. In this case, the ALJ determined that Ms. Medina retains the RFC to:

perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following non-exertional limitations. She would be limited to work that is of specific vocational preparation (SVP) level 2 or less as defined in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles. The claimant cannot perform work requiring a specific production rate and is limited to performing jobs requiring no more than simple workplace judgment. The claimant can respond appropriately to routine workplace change. She can interact appropriately with supervisors and co-workers on an occasional basis and on a limited basis with the general public.

AR at 25-26.

         The ALJ skipped Step Four, as he found that Ms. Medina has no past relevant work. AR at 32. Employing this RFC at Step Five, and relying on the testimony of a Vocational Expert, the ALJ determined that Ms. Medina can perform work that exists in the national economy, despite her limitations. AR at 32-33. Specifically, the ALJ determined that Ms. Medina retains the functional capacity to work as a Laundry Worker, Industrial Sweeper-Cleaner, or Housekeeping Cleaner. AR at 33. ...

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